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17 February 2009

All killer apps tend to FOSS

By Andrew Clifford

Free and open source software is constantly improving, and becoming more of a challenge to paid-for, closed-source software. Where will it end?

In my company, we decided some years ago to use free and open source software (FOSS) where practical because it is easier to manage in the long term and strategically significant (see Free software - never look back and Cheap IT turns competition upside down).

FOSS is even more compelling today than when we made that decision.

To illustrate, we recently bought new servers to help with our development and testing. We installed the CentOS 5.2 Linux operating system (basically a free clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

Installing Linux is a easier than it used to be. All the server administration functions - such as firewalls and service management - are easy to manage through the GUI. It was easy to set up, and has worked perfectly.

We need multiple development and test environments. We used the Xen virtualization software that comes as part of CentOS to create virtual machines running inside the main CentOS server to give us as many test machines as we need. Virtualization is of course available in paid-for software, but we found Xen simple, and there are no licensing restrictions on the Linux instances that we run.

It is not just on servers that FOSS keeps getting better.

Over the last week, I have installed the desktop version of Ubuntu Linux, used OpenOffice.org version 3 to recover a corrupt Microsoft Word file that Microsoft Office could not read, installed the MuseScore music composition software as a free alternative to the (very expensive) Sibelius, and installed the latest and greatest version of Gimp.

Slowly, steadily, FOSS keeps getting better. The advantages of freedom (both freedom of cost and freedom of action) are gradually outweighing the functionality and support advantages of paid-for software. Where will it end?

I have some observations.

  • All killer apps tend to FOSS. FOSS works well for operating systems, systems software, and widely used applications.
  • However, there are still huge opportunities for both FOSS and paid-for products. There are thousands of smaller niches where neither FOSS or paid-for products dominate.
  • Commercial software co-exists with FOSS by providing "value add" such as additional functionality, hosting or support. Many leading FOSS products are now owned by organisation that provide a paid-for option as well (we could call this FOSS+).

It is an interesting time for us in IT, who are consumers, advisers and providers of software. As consumers and advisers, we should always consider FOSS, and weigh the freedom and cost advantages of FOSS against the value-add of the alternatives. If FOSS is not appropriate, FOSS+ may provide a good combination of freedom and added value. We have many options, such as FOSS for development and FOSS+ for production.

As providers, we need to consider our options carefully. FOSS can be a useful channel, or a serious competitor.

I really do not know where all this will end. Paid-for software is far from dead, and maybe both approaches will continue indefinitely. All I am sure is that it won't end any time soon, and we will be discussing free and paid-for software for many years to come.

Next: Sustainable IT

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